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McDonough on Cromwell: An unbalanced mess that’s brilliant

March 13, 2008

As a medium, we’re led to believe that games must be fun to be successful. Commercially, that’s almost always true. There are, of course, catastrophes that are also successful due to massive marketing budgets or a pre-existing, successful IP, but these are the exceptions.

But games don’t have to be fun to be meaningful and beautiful. They don’t even have to be balanced. They have to be successful at communicating a point, and in my opinion, they reach beauty when they succeed in creating it in a way that promotes further thought. Passage is one such game, and I’ve talked about it regularly.

McDonough’s game Cromwell is another.

For design #13, and inspired by my Irish trend here, McDonough decided to create a game based on the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland. To set it up for you historically –

  • Short version: Ireland’s Irish Catholics are pwned and lose everything and any hope of getting anything. 15-20% of the population of Ireland is wiped out. Most were not expecting it and were unarmed.
  • Lengthy verison: Cromwell was responsible for the death of approximately 15-20% of the Irish population, banished 60K+ Irish to the Caribbean as slaves, notably Barbados and Monserratt, sent more to Connaught (the unworkable land in western Ireland), and then to really make things hell, took all the Irish Catholic land and gave it to his war’s investors to pay them back for their investment. Not enough? The penal codes followed shortly thereafter, and they forbid the education of Irish Catholics, the speaking of the Irish language, Catholic mass, the inheritance of land, the ownership of anything above a small amount, and lots more. When Cromwell showed up in Ireland, his arrival was not greeted by Ireland’s strongest tribes or even hordes of Viking descendants which had long since mixed with the Irish. Rather, they offered little if any resistance. By today’s standards, it was genocide.

Are we having fun yet? No? That’s the point.

It’s not a good game, though. There are few decisions for players to make and none of them are meaningful. There is no pattern to master. It is not fun.

He’s right, and he’s wrong. It is a good game if we expand the meaning of games to be about more than a balanced struggle toward something. If you’re screwed from the beginning, is it any less of a game if it still has an outcome? Ask the last place finishers in the Olympics.

But there is no hope, David. You’re right about that. I tried it. That is also where the game succeeds.

I had hoped I could make a game that really brought home the experience of the Irish during Cromwell’s Irish Campaign… and perhaps I have done so.

To me as a designer, it is at this point among other points, that games reach the level of conceptual art. When we use that element of interactivity to put people in situations that they could not otherwise be in, when we force them to consider the same meaningful or meaningless decisions, when we make the work get inside someone’s head, we succeed.

Works like this aren’t at all practical in the commercial industry, but there are lots of these works out there anyway (the Marriage is another that comes to mind just now). They show a freedom to play with rules, to make a point, just because it’s what a game can do and do best.

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